Chasing a new frontier, humankind sends a manned starship into the universe and away from the overpopulated Earth in hopes of finding a new planet to colonize. But every Earthlike world they discover is already inhabited. As it turns out, the universe is a very crowded place. An alien council offers to lease the one remaining uninhabited world: Astra, a bleak and barren but serviceable planet. The new settlement, though, quickly experiences serious problems, from dying crops to the mysterious disappearance of anything and everything that is made of metal. And then Astra reveals a secret neither the aliens nor the human governments could ever have imagined.
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About the Author
Timothy Zahn is the New York Times–bestselling science fiction author of more than forty novels, as well as many novellas and short stories. Best known for his contributions to the expanded Star Wars universe of books, including the Thrawn trilogy, Zahn also wrote the Cobra series and the young adult Dragonback series—the first novel of which, Dragon and Thief, was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. Zahn currently resides in Oregon with his family.
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By Timothy Zahn
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1985 Timothy Zahn
All rights reserved.
From orbit Astra resembled nothing so much as a giant mudball on which someone had thoughtlessly spilled a bucket or two of pale blue paint. Both of the continental land masses were as dead-dull-bland as anything Colonel Lloyd Meredith had ever seen. No reds, certainly no greens; just the occasional blue of a lake or a line of white-capped mountains. Even the continental-shelf mineral deposits upon which the planet's future industry depended so heavily came out as a blue-washed white. "I wish we'd brought some paint," he commented to me man beside him.
Captain Radford snorted mildly. "You'll get used to it," he said. "I think you'll find you've got bigger problems down there than lack of decent scenery."
"No doubt," Meredith conceded. Radford had been ferrying workers and equipment back and forth for nearly a year now and undoubtedly knew more about the place than Meredith, who'd spent that same period up to his zygomatic arch in organizational details for the permanent colony. "Are we anywhere near the settlement? My map-reading courses never included looking at the terrain from this height."
"We're just coming up on it now." Radford indicated the western edge of the continent below. "You see that sort of four-fingered bay, with the big island just off it? That's the place. Right near the mineral deposits, with several feeding rivers for fresh water and the sheltered areas of the bay for fish breeding. The main military base and landing facilities are on the island; the towns are on the bay or within a dozen kilometers of it."
"Um." Meredith's eyes traced the line of mountains arcing into the bay from the southeast, shifted to a solitary shadow fifty kilometers or so due east of the settlement. "What about that volcano?"
"You mean Olympus? No sweat—the thing's been dormant for centuries."
"Yes, that's what the preliminary report said. Anybody done a more careful check of it since then?"
"I don't know. You've got your own geologists, though, don't you? I'm sure they can put your mind at ease."
Meredith pursed his lips momentarily at the other's faintly patronizing tone. A lot of the colonel's colleagues thought him overly cautious on the subject of volcanos ... but then, none of them had seen firsthand the aftermath of the '88 Izalco eruption that had killed four hundred people in El Salvador. "I'm sure they can," he told Radford evenly. "All right. How soon can we launch shuttles and start getting this crowd down?"
"Any time you and the crowd are ready," Radford said. "As far as I'm concerned, the sooner the better."
Meredith nodded understanding; there'd been a lot of tension aboard ship the past three weeks. "They'll calm down once they've got room to move again."
"I hope so—for your sake." Keying his intercom, Radford began issuing orders.
Seen from ground level, Astra's color scheme wasn't markedly improved; but Dr. Peter Hafner didn't especially care. He'd studied all the photos and read all the soil analyses, but there was nothing that could compare to seeing the rocks close up and personally handling them. Leaning over the hovercraft rail, he gazed at the low cliffs flanking the narrow entrance to Splayfoot Bay, eyes tracing the subtle variations in hue and wondering about their composition. For the moment, speculation was all he could do; the extreme scarcity of metallic elements in Astra's crust opened the way for compounds never before suspected, let alone seen. He could hardly wait to begin work on them.
The hovercraft cleared the bay's entrance and headed toward the easternmost of the three main arms. Hafner caught a glimpse of a settlement up in the northern branch, but it was too far away for him to pick out any details. A few minutes later the craft entered the eastern arm, and Hafner saw that there was another collection of buildings at its far end. The majority seemed to be built along the lines of rowhouses, though there were a few larger ones that probably served as community or storage facilities. The construction material was obvious: some sort of adobe, probably baked in slabs for faster construction. Undoubtedly efficient, given the lack of wood, but the drab result was pretty grim.
Beside him, two Hispanic-looking men were also squinting at the town ahead. From the tone of their muttered Spanish, Hafner decided they were similarly unimpressed by its appearance. He wondered if anyone had thought to bring along any house paint, decided regretfully that such a consideration would rank low on military priority lists.
For the moment, though, the clothing of the people milling about added color to the scene. A small crowd was gathered near the dock, where one of the other hovercraft was still unloading. Hafner's craft slid into position on the opposite side of the welded metal pier, and the scientist joined the rest of the colonists streaming ashore.
The crowd turned out to be the queue for a sort of open-air check-in station the military had set up. Hafner took his place at the end of one of the lines, thankful that the Army had had the sense to give the colonists some time in the open after the cramped conditions aboard ship.
The sun was directly overhead—noon of a twenty-seven-hour day—and now that the mountain foothills blocked the stiff ocean breeze, the air was beginning to warm up. Hafner slipped off his jacket, wondering idly how good the meteorologists' seasonal predictions really were. Astra's smaller axial tilt should give milder temperature swings than those of Hafner's native Pennsylvania, but with barely a year's worth of data to go on, the planet's climate was far from established. Certainly it seemed hotter now than the early spring this part of Astra was supposed to be in at the moment, and if this wasn't just a temporary heat wave even the tough hybrid crop strains they'd brought with them might be in trouble. He hoped the experts had taken such possibilities into account.
Finally, it was his turn at the front of the line. "Name?" the sweating lieutenant asked, not bothering to look up from his portable terminal.
"Peter Hafner. I'm a geologist with Dr. Patterson's group—"
The terminal spat out a small card. "Hafner, Peter Andrew; 1897-22-6618; science/professional." The soldier handed Hafner the card. "House number 127 here in Unie; maps are posted in the courtyard over there; meal and orientation meeting times are on the bulletin board beside the maps. Questions will be answered at the meeting tonight; emergency questions can be handled at the admin complex. Next!"
Well, at least they've got things organized, Hafner thought as he headed toward the knot of people around the bulletin board. For a moment he considered finding the admin complex and seeing if they would tell him where Patterson would be living. But they were probably up to their necks in work over there, and there was no point making a nuisance of himself any sooner than necessary. The meeting tonight would be soon enough to find Patterson and discuss the work schedule; until then, he would do well to put a leash and choke collar on his eagerness. A quick look at his new quarters and a long walk around Unie should do him for today. In fact, if his luggage had been delivered to his house yet, he'd even have his sample boxes and a handful of reagents to take with him.
Smiling, he picked up his pace. Perhaps the afternoon wouldn't be a total waste, after all.
The stars were shining like frozen sparks overhead as the Ceres town meeting broke up, their brilliance seemingly unaffected by the handful of lights that defined where the streets were alleged to be. Cristobal Perez walked slowly toward the house he shared with two other men, the work orders they'd passed out in the meeting crinkling in his pocket as he moved.
A footstep scrunched the gravel behind him: someone overtaking. Turning, he caught a glimpse of the other's face. "Matro," he nodded in greeting. "How do you like your new home so far? A true land of opportunity, sí?"
Matro Rodriguez snarled an old Nahuatl curse Perez had often heard him use. "Farming. Farming! We came all this way just to be put to work in fields like migrants?"
"I told you not to expect too much," Perez said with a shrug. "If you'd ever been in the Army, you would know that all recruiters lie through their teeth."
"We might as well be in the Army. Or haven't you looked at the list of rules yet?"
"I looked at it. What did you expect—that we would be the new Pilgrims here, get to do anything we want?"
Rodriguez didn't seem to be listening. "Did you notice how practically everyone in Ceres is Hispanic? And how they've got us three to a house? I was behind one of the middle-class science types in line this afternoon—he got a house all to himself in Unie."
"Well, at least we've got our own lake."
"I'm overjoyed," Rodriguez said sourly. "The Anglos'll probably sit around it while we dig irrigation ditches to the fields."
"You're getting yourself worked up for nothing. All right, so they're treating us like peons—now. But there are a lot more colonists than there are soldiers, and I don't suppose the Anglos will be thrilled by Army rules for long either. As long as we stick together we can make this place what they promised us it would be."
Rodriguez gave him a hard look. "You were always a pretty good talker, weren't you? I noticed you didn't say any of this at the meeting when they ordered us into the fields."
"Of course not—we've all got to eat, haven't we? But the time will come, Matro, and when it does we'll be the ones bargaining from strength. Trust me."
The other snorted. "Sure. But I won't believe it until it happens. Buenos noches." Lengthening his stride, he disappeared into the gloom.
Perez watched him go, feeling his lip curl slightly. He and Rodriguez had been friends since their high school days in Texas, and he'd yet to see the other use his head while his mouth and fists were still operable. Chances were good he'd go off half-cocked this time, too, and get himself in a lot of trouble. If that happened ... well, Perez would just have to do what he could to help. It was a pain, but Rodriguez was people, and Perez could hardly claim to be out to save the world if he weren't out to save people, too.
Lost in conversation and musings, he'd overshot his turnoff. Retracing his steps, he headed down the dimly lit lane toward his new home, hoping his roommates weren't planning to stay up late talking. As in all farming communities, Ceres's day was going to start early.
Pulling the sheet up to her chin, Carmen Olivero turned off her light with a tired sigh. Only one day on Astra, she thought wryly, and already I'm a week behind. A new record. By all rights, she knew, she ought to still be at the Unie admin complex, where the rest of the organizational staff was busy with final duty rosters and equipment/supply check-in. The latter work had been done once, of course; when the ships were being loaded, but it all had to be done over to check for breakage and such during the voyage. But Colonel Meredith had left specific orders for her group to be available at 0700, and she knew better than to scrimp on sleep if she wanted to be at least halfway competent at her job. Especially after undergoing this new space-age equivalent of jet lag.
She closed her eyes, but her mind seemed to still be in high gear. Inventory lists and storage assignments hovered in front of her eyes, threatening her with an avalanche of paper. She'd been doing this sort of work for fifteen years now, but nothing in her experience had prepared her for the sheer complexity of this job. Ten thousand colonists and military people required a lot of supplies, and aside from water the local environment provided practically zilch. And it was a long, long way to Earth for anything they ran out of.
She fought it for ten minutes before finally tossing back the sheet and padding barefoot to the kitchen. The individual food supplies hadn't yet been distributed to the various houses, but the plumbing and microwave worked and she always carried a few packets of instant hot chocolate in her personal luggage. A few minutes later she was sitting by the kitchen window with the steaming mug, listening to the faint voices and machinery sounds from the direction of the docks. I wonder when I'll start missing Fort Dix, she wondered. Not that the base or even the rest of Jersey had held that great an attraction for her; but after a lifetime of periodic uprootings, she knew full well that the pangs of homesickness would eventually come. In her Army brat days the agony had sometimes seemed to be more than she could handle, enhanced as it was by the loss of school and friends; now, at the ripe old age of thirty-six, she knew the reaction would be no more than a dull haze over her life for a few days. Still, it was never much fun. One of these days, she told herself, sipping cautiously, I'm going to have to give up this nonsense and settle down somewhere for good. Maybe when we've got Astra on its feet ... or when we throw in the towel and all go home. Whichever comes first.
Somehow, neither option seemed all that thrilling at the moment. Never get philosophical at two in the morning, she thoughts quoting Number Twelve of her personal list of rules, and dismissed the subject. Draining her cup, she rinsed it out and put it into the sink, hoping in passing that her new roommate wouldn't turn out to be a cleanliness fanatic. Back in bed, she found her brain had cut back to idle—far enough down for her usual sleep routine to be effective. Snuggling up to her pillow, she closed her eyes. Sufficient unto the day are the troubles thereof, she quoted to herself, and turned loose the future to handle its own affairs. Two minutes later she was fast asleep.CHAPTER 2
"... And here are the inventory lists from Crosse," Major Thomas Brown said, laying one last thickness of printout on Colonel Meredith's desk. "Everything's out of the Aurora now, and the Pathfinder's last load is on its way down. Most of the stuff waiting to be sorted is bulk food, clothing, and fertilizer."
Meredith nodded, glancing over the first page of the printout. His eyeballs ached their continual reminder that three hours of sleep was inadequate for a man his age. "How's the landing strip holding out?" he asked.
"Pretty well, actually. Those repulsers the Ctencri sell are pretty hot, but because the shuttles use a smaller chunk of runway for both land and lift there's actually less overall wear and tear on the permcrete. It'll need some patching, of course, but we've got three weeks before the Celeritas arrives on its supply run."
"Good. Do we have enough room to let the flyers lift?"
"Oh, sure. They don't need much more than their own length if you crank the repulsers up full."
"I know, but I'd rather not run them any higher than necessary. You never know what the half-life of a chunk of technology is going to be."
"The Ctencri numbers—"
"Were provided by the Ctencri equivalent of a sales rep. Need I say more?"
Brown harumphed. "Well, they should still have no trouble. It's mostly the center of the runway that's torn up, and the flyers can easily fit on either side."
"Fine." Meredith raised his wrist phone and keyed a number.
"Martello hangar; Greenburg," the device responded.
"Colonel Meredith. Have the flyers been checked out yet?"
"Two are ready to go, sir. The third'll be another hour or so."
"Okay. Have the first two teams head out—alert the tower to monitor and record all data."
Meredith disconnected and returned his attention to Brown. "Planting get started on schedule?"
"Mostly. The fields at Crosse were still too low in zinc and manganese this morning, and Dr. Haversham ordered another layer of fertilizer laid down. His guess was that the rivers bordering the fields cause a faster than normal ground water exchange that siphons off the extra minerals. Or something like that."
"Great. Well, if that's the worst goof the engineers made when they laid out this place, I guess we can live with it."
"At least we've got the fertilizer to spare." Brown was looking curious. "You expecting to find Captain Kidd's treasure or something hidden in the hinterlands?"
"What? Oh—the flyers? No, I just thought we should do some low-level surveys of the territory around the settlement."
Brown shrugged. "We've got cartography-quality photos for about a hundred kilometers around us. What more are we likely to need?"
Excerpted from Spinneret by Timothy Zahn. Copyright © 1985 Timothy Zahn. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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